I used to work at the University of Maryland College Park, and I remember how excited the deans were about the new Edward St. John Learning and Teaching Center. The powers-that-be touted the potential for innovations in pedagogy and forward-thinking education. I, along with my colleagues, imagined a place where we would go to sharpen our pedagogical skills and learn new ways to engage our students with meaningful learning challenges. Well, one look at this video showed me just how wrong I was…….and even worse, the irony that the building of a prominent state research university is completely furnished with products made by imprisoned people. Where is the excellence in that practice? Thanks, Morna McDermott, for this fine blog post on the story behind the new building and the irony of naming it for a real-estate mogul who supports charter schools.
Meanwhile, most imprisoned folks in Maryland are only able to earn a GED while incarcerated, and many wait years to be able to take classes for barbering and other hands-on professions.
Here’s what Edward St. John had to say about education—his words are displayed on a large plaque in the new building that bears his name:
“Education has the power to transform lives and strengthen communities.”
Whose lives? Whose communities?
I was appalled when an educator/activist/author friend of mine, shared with me over coffee, that University of Maryland College Park, in partnership with real estate mogul Edward St John, contracted with prison labor for the creation of their shiny new building:
“MCE Helps Furnish New Edward St. John Learning and Teaching Center at UMCP
On Thursday, May 11, 2017, the University of Maryland dedicated the new Edward St. John Learning and Teaching Center. Named for Baltimore-based developer, philanthropist and 1961 alumnus, Edward St. John, founder and chairman of St. John Properties, the 187,000-square- foot space, which includes 12 classrooms and nine teaching labs with a total of 1,500 seats, will elevate the culture of collaborative learning on campus.
Maryland Correctional Enterprises (MCE) was responsible for designing, manufacturing and installing a variety of products used in the new building.”
Agenda University System of Maryland see item:
A-2. Maryland Correctional Enterprises – Edward St. John Teaching & Learning Center – Furniture $1,345,599.00UMS/UMCP Prince George’s
The contract is also presented on MCE’s Fiscal Year statement.
Maryland Correctional Enterprises (MCE) is the state’s own prison labor company. A semi-autonomous subdivision of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS), MCE commands a workforce of thousands of prisoners, paid just a few dollars per day. MCE workers make far less than minimum wage, earning between $1.50 and $5.10 for an entire day’s work.
Most of us are familiar by now with the concept of a school-to-prison pipeline, but here it is, a prison-for-school pipeline, or better yet, prison-for-profit (all hail 21st century slavery alive and well) in the name of “education reform.”
It might be a “great day” for Ed St John and U of M, but I doubt its a great day for the forced laborers who did the work. The new center will “transform teaching and learning” but it will not transform systemic oppression or racism. In fact, it benefits from the fruits of oppressive labor. This is not the only time that U of M, or other institutions of higher learning have used prison labor. That is a deep seated problem in itself that warrants our attention. As one news article states, “”Maryland is just a symptom … of how the prison industrial complex affects African-Americans and poor people of color nationwide.”
What I choose to focus on here is the irony of the scope and purpose of the St John education building and education legacy itself through the use of prison labor, especially for an organization such as the Edward St John Foundation which says: “Our mission is based on the strong belief that ‘education has the power to transform lives and strengthen communities.’”
Also ironic is that the new center is touted as being “designed to serve as a national model of collaborative learning and to create new spaces enabling students to launch their own business enterprises.” Will the students who attend those classes learn about how for-profit-prison industry is a boon to corporate moguls who profiteer from the incarceration of low income people of color as a “business enterprise?”
Edward St. John is also a big donor to KIPP schools, known for their “zero-tolerance” discipline tactics which ironically funnel more students into the prison pipeline than do public schools. But it doesn’t stop with KIPP. St. John is also the developer for a new charter school in Frederick County: The Frederick Classical Charter School. Clearly, St. John did his homework about the uber-profits that can be made by corporate venture investments into school “reform” like charters.
So, let me re summarize this succinctly once more for the cheap seats in the back: Corporate philanthropists like St. John use $ and power to influence education reform policies, and build their own charter schools, which create racist zero-tolerance policies that expel or suspend children of color, who wind up in the correctional facilities that build the higher education buildings where students will be taught to support education reforms that support the same philanthropists.
As his company credo says: Doing Well By Doing Good. It’s clear he’s doing “well” … but is he doing “good”?